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|Industry Engagement - The New Buzz Word in Science?
| 5 November 2014 | Sebastian Feller
There is one thing that I hear over and over again these days: your research must be translatable. Engage the industry! This is usually followed by a big but: don’t use your fancy researcher language. Talk like a normal person, so that the industry people get an understanding of what you are doing.
My colleagues and I are struggling. Translating our expert jargon into plain English is definitely easier said than done. First of all, it turns out that we are often blind to many of the expressions that come with a high chance of being practically meaningless to the layperson. We use these expressions on a daily basis. They are part of how we conceptualize our expert knowledge, and it seems almost impossible to replace them with “plain” English, let along avoid them altogether. Second, whenever we come up with a paraphrase, it feels that 90 per cent of the original meaning is lost in translation.
From my personal correspondence with friends working in the Pharma industry, I know that these kind of language barriers exist even across people of the same “flock”. One friend told me that she has often encountered problems in meetings and in telephone conferences, where the dialog partners either interpreted the same terms differently or did not interpret them at all, as they had no idea about what their meaning was. Let’s hope the Pharma people have at least a clear understanding of what they put in our meds. Fingers crossed!
As a linguist I am little surprised about non- or misunderstanding. In the end, language and meaning are not clear cut. When we talk to each other, we negotiate meanings continuously in an attempt to understand each other. But rather than a limitation, I personally view meaning relativity an asset of human language and communication. For example, we can refer to a potentially open-ended array of things by bending the conventions of language use. We can invent new meanings and express novel ideas. Furthermore, meaning relativity means meaning diversity. Each one of us interprets expressions in their own unique way. From this point of view, every expression has as many meanings as there are people who interpret it. I hold that these differences in interpreting expressions are a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. Without them, we would all say and mean the same thing; in other words, we would talk “in circles”. Meaning relativity breaks the circularity, paving the way for “a universe of meanings”.
So what is the take home message here? A cobbler should stick to his last. Or, to return to the beginning of this post, a researcher should stick to her “fancy” researcher language. I believe that what needs to be changed is rather the communicative culture, not the language. Especially in professionalized worlds like industry and research, people tend to shy away from meaning negotiation. Many of us sit in meetings and presentations day in and day out. And I bet that most of us have a feeling that much of what we hear there does not make much sense to the majority of the audience. But instead of asking questions and engaging in meaning negotiation, people pretend that everything were crystal clear to them. If we want to take advantage of meaning relativity, we ought to ask questions with a view to arriving at a working interpretation of what the speaker is saying and, more importantly, to opening up the door to novel and innovative ideas.
The other day my 3 year old son played with his yo-yo. He would hold on to the string of the unwound yo-yo and let it tingle through the air. I asked him What are you doing? His reply: I am fishing with my yo-yo. [he points at the string] and This is my angling rodthis is the fish [he points at the body of the yo-yo]. Brilliant!
Tags: meaning, meaning relativity, meaning negotiation, misunderstanding, innovation